But perhaps the most important characteristic common to swashbucklers is a personal code of honor.
‘Never submit quietly to the slightest indignity, except it proceed from the cardinal or the king. It is by his courage — mark this well — it is by his courage alone, that a gentleman makes his way nowadays. Whoever hesitates one moment, lets perhaps that chance escape him, which fortune, for that moment alone, has offered him.’To the swashbuckler it is better to risk death than dishonor. One’s reputation is, in the end, all one truly possesses — power and fortunes come and go, but honor can only be given away, never taken.
— Alexandre Dumas, The Three Musketeers
He took his place without a word. I read in his drawn white face that he had made his mind up to the worst, and his courage so won my admiration that I would gladfully and thankfully have set one of the lookers-on — any of the lookers-on — in his place; but that could not be. So I thought of Zaton’s closed to me, of Pombal’s insult, of the sneers and slights I had long kept at sword point; and, pressing him suddenly in a heat of affected anger, I thrust strongly over his guard, which had grown feeble, and ran him through the chest.
— Stanley Weyman, Under the Red Robe
Alatriste shook his head thoughtfully, then looked at his sword and his dagger. “We are what we are,” he thought. “My reputation is all, and I have no other.”
— Arturo Pérez-Reverte, The Cavalier in the Yellow Doublet
That sense of honor should not be confused with behaving honorably. A swashbuckler need not be a paragon of virtue — in fact they may be quite the opposite. Diego Alatriste is a hired assassin. Percy Blakeney accepts money to kindnap a burgher’s daughter, then swindles the burgher into paying Blakeney to ‘rescue’ her. D’Artagnan date-rapes Milady de Winter by posing as the comte de Wardes and sneaking into her bedroom under cover of darkness. To satisfy a bet, the marquis de Bardelys assumes the identity of a dead man in order to trick the daughter of the vicomte de Lavedan into marrying him. A swashbuckler’s deeds may define him as hero or villain, but his honor demands that he accept his due no matter what, without equivocation.
Maintaining one’s reputation and preserving one’s honor may lead a swashbuckler down several paths. For example, some may choose to fight anyone and everyone who offers them cause, however slight; this is the classic duelist. Others may emphasize courtesy and etiquette to avoid giving or taking offense, minimizing slights and reserving the sword as the final recourse for the most grave slanders.
Players in cape-and-sword roleplaying game campaigns may choose to give some thought to how their characters express their honor before the campaign begins, but even if they don't, how the player characters conduct themselves in actual play will reflect a de facto personal code by which others may take the character's measure.